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21 December 2013updated 04 Oct 2023 12:02pm

Re: Quin: An overdue study of the “experimental“ novelist Ann Quin

Too little has been written about the Brighton-born novelist, Ann Quin, whose writing ruptured middle class pieties.

By Juliet Jacques

Too little has been written about Brightonian novelist Ann Quin since her death in August 1973. Most of what has been has highlighted the striking opening sentence of her first novel, Berg, originally published by John Calder in 1964 and later reissued by Dalkey Archive Press:
A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father …’
Robert Buckeye’s Re: Quin, also published by Dalkey and described as an “unabashedly personal and partisan critical biography” of “one of the best and most neglected” British “experimental” writers of the 1960s, breaks with convention by opening with a quote from contemporary author-artist Stewart Home about “The body of a dead princess” serving “as a metaphor for literature”. Buckeye then moves onto a Malcolm X speech from 1964, using it to illustrate his point that radical times need radical culture, before placing Quin into a post-war avant-garde with William S. Burroughs, Alexander Trocchi, B. S. Johnson and others.
Buckeye’s first chapter cites the basics of Quin’s life as the inspiration for her four novels, Berg, Three (1966), Passages (1969) and Tripticks (1972). Quin was born in Brighton in March 1936, on the fringes of the working class and the petit bourgeoisie, and then abandoned by her father, raised by her mother and sent to a convent school. When she was 14, she fell in love with her half-brother, who died five years later; towards the end, she endured electro-shock treatment for mental health problems and had a breakdown. While in hospital, she sublet her flat to a tenant who didn’t pay the rent, whereupon the estate agent cleared it out and dumped all of her possessions, including two unpublished novels, before she drowned herself near Brighton’s Palace Pier, aged 36.
Dividing his study into themes rather than individual works, Buckeye describes Quin’s writing as a “rupture of middle class pieties” and a “catalog of sexual practices”, reflecting a typically Sixties interest in psychoanalysis and sexology, but springing from her traumatic childhood. Buckeye’s biography is quite deterministic: “death was always near”, he writes, in a life punctuated by silence, notably at an ICA reading where Quin wouldn’t say a word, which Alan Burns said was her usual approach, and then after her breakdown left her unable to speak for some time. The only constant, Buckeye emphasises, was writing.
Berg remains Quin’s best known novel, having been filmed as Killing Dad in 1989. Combining the influence of Virginia Woolf with the nouveau roman authors, particularly Nathalie Sarraute, Berg was her most plotted work, and the one which deviated the most from her own life. Quin was dissatisfied with Berg, believing it too conventional – a disappointment often felt by her post-war Modernist contemporaries about their own output. However, Berg remains most critically acclaimed for its imaginative take on the alienated male, lost within Brighton’s tawdry seaside-resort culture, and for its dark humour. Berg turns Freud’s Oedipus complex into high farce: Berg has a relationship with his father’s mistress, and, after disguising himself as a woman, is nearly raped by the patriarch. It’s a narrative that Buckeye summarises as “surreal, always interior, associative, fragmentary”, often leaving the reader to determine what is real, and what happens only in the protagonist’s mind. He is most interested in its ending, where Berg is asked to settle for a normal, middle class home life, and is as horrified by this as the deaths he witnesses throughout, but Buckeye writes relatively little on Berg, perhaps taking Quin’s assessment at face value.
Triangulated relationships were Quin’s major theme. This was stripped to its essentials in Three, which opens with the death of a young woman, known as “S”. Leonard and Ruth, a middle-class couple, reflect on the time S spent at their summer house, and how they both became romantically attached to her, shifting between their bitter arguments and the diaries, tapes and films that S left. Buckeye devotes more time to Three, striking his most successful balance between biography and criticism: praising the way that Quin “turns the lamp away from S and onto those who question her”, he shows how Quin used both the form and content of her writing to jolt her readers out of complacency, whether it be through the absurd twists of Berg or the subtle, sad, stream-of-consciousness of Three.
Buckeye gives most space to Passages, “the most personal of [Quin’s] works” and the one she considered “most important”. Of her novels, Passages is the one which most rejects plot. Shifting from first to third person as it follows an unnamed woman searching for her lost brother on a Greek island, some of its fragments achieve real strength through their sparseness – the “Notebook of a Depressive” which includes “Making love coldly / clinically” and “wanting / demanding / reassurance”, all but forces readers to interrogate their own behaviour – but Quin’s refusal of both the narrative punch of Berg and the sensitive characterisation of Three makes Passages less appealing to pursue to its end. 
Buckeye writes well on Quin’s tactical use of elliptical writing, and how she developed her style, but less so on how successfully it is applied in each work. After his close reading of Passages, more is needed on Tripticks – “a savage assault on an America obsessed by commerce, advertising and media, a road novel from hell, written as if it is the frenzy of one last gasp” – and how far it returns to slightly more traditional structure, but it only gets a couple of pages during a discussion of Quin’s final days.
This points towards the main problem: Buckeye doesn’t have enough space to unpack the complex relationships between Quin’s life and work, leaning too far towards biography. What he provides is often intelligent and insightful, but 52 pages are simply too few, especially as Buckeye’s poetic approach means that, for example, three are devoted to ruminations on the figure of the traveller, where Quin is not mentioned. Buckeye laments the lack of attention paid to Quin before her death, and particularly that one of her few high-profile interviews, with The Guardian’s John Hall in April 1972, was so “nasty, patronizing and dismissive”. This book is a welcome counterpoint, but should form a start rather than an end: Buckeye documents the struggles that she faced not just to write but also to be published, but with all of her novels back in print, Re: Quin signifies that the time for a more extensive critical reappraisal has arrived.
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